Even though I don’t know your name or where you’re from, I see you every Veterans Day when wartime documentaries are run on television. Each time, you appear for about five seconds as a speck in a grainy film taken from Normandy beach as you and your brethren struggle up from the sea at dawn. With rifle in hand and backpack piled high, you lean forward into a hail of machine gun fire.
A fog of artillery smoke makes each step seem to be in slow motion as you navigate a tide of fallen comrades. Ten thousand will be killed or missing in action on this day. The picture frame trembles from the impact of incoming shells.
Every year it’s the same. By the time the camera finds you, so have the enemy gunners. Your ranks thin. I want to somehow magically pause the film, give you time to reach the cover of a sand dune. But there is no such miracle for you and others snared in this living hell.
Those who survive rarely speak of it again. So, it was with my father. Because he made it across 200 yards of hostel beach in North Africa, I was given the chance to live a long and bountiful life. He never once brought it up.
Until I watched your sliver of film, I’d never seen a man die. This Veterans Day, as in years past, my heart will break when you crumple to the sand. I will be haunted by the girl you never got to marry, the children you never had, and the contributions they might have made to this world.
Soldier, I owe you and the others who never made it off that beach, a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.
All I can offer you in return is the sure knowledge that your five seconds of film will reaffirm for generations to come the true meaning of the word courage.